Last summer, sitting at midnight on a Boeing Dreamliner at JFK airport before floating into the dawn across the Atlantic, we heard the captain give a eulogy of the aeroplane—its facilities, and the fact that it was made of composite material. And when we flew, the difference was evident: the wings did not shake as the plane sped along the runway, and the flight was quiet, smooth and almost enjoyable.

His description notably did not contain the word plastic. But that word had been used in a tabloid newspaper to scare people in 2011. ‘Plastic aircraft’ was the expression they used, in airing doubts about their safety.

All this may confirm that the word plastic used in malam partem has not disappeared. That usage apparently began during the 1950s, when the market was flooded with implements and toys made of the cheapest plastic, which disintegrated in a short time.

The OED mentions the usage of ‘artificial, unnatural; superficial, insincere’ as dating from 1963. Chambers gives ‘unattractively synthetic or artificial.’ Merriam Webster is perhaps nearer the mark with ‘having a quality suggestive of mass-produced plastic goods.’

But none of them quite convey that connotation of the unreliable and the bogus that became attached to the word—a nuance implicit when an angry father told his son to look for a real woman and stop fooling around with plastic ones.

It does become clear from the OED that the word has been used for man-made materials since before 1909:

  • ‘Any of a large and varied class of materials used widely in manufacturing, which are organic polymers of high molecular weight, now usually based on synthetic materials, and may be moulded, extruded, or cast when they are soft or liquid, and then set into a rigid or slightly elastic form.’

Its first recorded use was for Bakelite, which certainly gained general approval; and people still collect objects such as fountain pens that were beautifully made of such materials. As for plastic used to make aeroplanes, the first instance of that was in the 1940s.

The history of such materials has some excellent summaries on the net, not least in Wikipedia. As for composite materials, they are of great antiquity: wattle and daub was apparently used before 6000BC, and bricks were a refinement of that.

Notable is that the Greek word πλάσσω, from which the adjective πλαστικός derives, as does the noun πλάσμα, is used censoriously by the 4th century BC:
τἰ λόγους πλάττεις; asks Demosthenes of Aeschines in their famous court case: “Why are you fabricating words?” (18.121)  And Isocrates uses the verb to denote the making of false accusations (12.25).

Next post: Artifice.